Jews around the world today are known to be more educated – and even more likely to vote in elections – than their counterparts. But was this high level of literacy true thousands of years ago? Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU), together with a retired superintendent and senior handwriting examiner from the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, have found that contrary to popular belief, many people in the ancient Kingdom of Judah could read and write.
The first-ever, special interdisciplinary study, just published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS One) was conducted by Dr. Arie Shaus, Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin and Dr. Barak Sober of TAU’s applied mathematics department; Prof. Eli Piasetzky of the Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy; and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the department of archeology and ancient Near Eastern civilizations. The forensic handwriting specialist was Yana Gerber, a senior expert who served for 27 years in the Israel Police.
The researchers examined the writings found in Tel Arad – ostraca (fragments of pottery vessels containing ink inscriptions) that were discovered at the Tel Arad archaeological site in the 1960s. Tel Arad is one of Israel’s most important archaeological sites, where remains were found of a fortified Canaanite city and fortresses from the time of the kings of Judah, when it was a small military post on the southern border of the kingdom. Its built-up area covered about two dunams, and it housed between 20 and 30 soldiers. The fortresses include the remains of a unique Judean temple.
Literacy was not the exclusive domain of a handful of royal scribes, the team concluded after examining ink-inscribed pottery shards and identifying 12 different handwritings with varying degrees of certainty.
A high rate of literacy indicates the ability to compile biblical texts, such as the books from Joshua to Kings, before the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.
Forensic handwriting examination of the Arad inscriptions had never before been conducted. In fact, to the best of the team’s knowledge, such an examination had never been performed on any ancient inscription for forensic chemical analysis in the context of historical texts. The researchers used state-of-the-art image processing and machine learning technologies to analyze 18 ancient texts from the Tel Arad military post dating back to around 600 BCE. They concluded that they were written by no fewer than 12 authors, a finding suggesting that many of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah during that period were able to read and write, and that literacy not reserved as an exclusive domain in the hands of a few royal scribes.
“There is a lively debate among experts as to whether the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were compiled in the last days of the Kingdom of Judah or after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians,” said Shaus. “One way to try to get to the bottom of this question is to ask when there was the potential for the writing of such complex historical works. For the period following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC, there is a very scant archaeological evidence of Hebrew writing in Jerusalem and its surroundings, whereas for the period preceding the destruction of the Temple, an abundance of written documents has been found.”
But then, Shaus continued, the question of who wrote these documents remains. Was this a society with widespread literacy or was there just a handful of literate people?
“We examined the question of literacy empirically from different directions of image processing and machine learning,” said Faigenbaum-Golovin. “Among other things, these areas help us today with the identification, recognition and analysis of handwriting, signatures and more. The big challenge was to adapt modern technologies to ancient ostraca. With a lot of effort, we were able to produce two algorithms that could compare letters and answer the question of whether two given ostraca were written by two different people.”
In 2016, the team published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) that algorithmically, and with high statistical probability, 18 texts – the longest of the Tel Arad inscriptions – were written by at least four different authors. Combined with the textual evidence, the researchers concluded that there were in fact at least six different writers. This study aroused great interest around the world.
Now, in an unprecedented development, the researchers decided to compare the algorithmic methods, which have since been refined, to the forensic approach. To this end, Gerber from the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science joined the team. After an in-depth examination of the ancient inscriptions, she found that the 18 texts were written by at least 12 distinct writers with varying degrees of certainty. Gerber examined the original Tel Arad ostraca at the Israel Museum in Jeusalem, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, TAU’s Sonia and Marco Nedler Institute of Archaeology and the Israel Antiquities Authority’s warehouses at Beit Shemesh (located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv).
“This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career,” noted Gerber. “These are ancient Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on shards of pottery, using an alphabet that was previously unfamiliar to me. I studied the characteristics of the writing to analyze and compare the inscriptions while benefitting from the skills and knowledge I acquired during my bachelor’s degree from TAU in classical archaeology and ancient Greek. I delved into the microscopic details of these inscriptions written by people from the First Temple period, from routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil and flour, through correspondence with neighboring fortresses to orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system. I had the feeling that the time stood still and there was no gap of 2,600 years between the writers of the ostraca and ourselves.”
“Handwriting is made up of unconscious habit patterns,” Gerber explained. “The handwriting identification is based on the principle that these writing patterns are unique to each person and that no two people write exactly alike. It is also assumed that repetitions of the same text or characters by the same writer are not exactly identical and one can define a range of natural handwriting variations specific to each one. Thus, the forensic handwriting analysis aims at tracking features corresponding to specific individuals, and concluding whether a single or rather different authors wrote the given documents.”
The examination process, she went on, is divided into three steps: analysis, comparison, and evaluation. The analysis includes a detailed examination of every single inscription according various features such as the spacing between letters, their proportions and slant. The comparison is based upon these features across various handwritings. In addition, consistent patterns, common for different inscriptions, are identified, such as the same combinations of letters, words and punctuation. Finally, an evaluation of identicalness or distinctiveness of the writers is made. It should be noted that according to a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, a person can be convicted of a crime based on the opinion of a forensic handwriting expert.”
Shaus added: “We were in for a big surprise: Yana identified more authors than our algorithms did. Currently, our algorithms are of a ‘cautious’ nature; they know how to identify cases in which the texts were written by people with significantly different writing; in other cases, they refrain from definite conclusions. In contrast, an expert in handwriting analysis knows not only how to spot differences between writers more accurately, but in some cases may also arrive at the conclusion that several texts were actually written by a single person. Naturally, in terms of consequences, it is very interesting to see who the authors are. Thanks to the findings, we were able to construct an entire flowchart of the correspondence concerning the military fortress – who wrote to whom and regarding what matter”. This reflects the chain of command within the Judahite army.”
For example, in the area of Arad, close to the border between the kingdoms of Judah and Edom, there was a military force whose soldiers are referred to as Kittiyim in the inscriptions – most likely Greek mercenaries, said Shaus. “Someone, probably their Judahite commander or liaison officer, requested provisions for the Kittiyim unit. He writes to the quartermaster of the fortress in Arad ‘give the Kittiyim flour, bread, wine’ and so on. Now, thanks to the identification of the handwriting, we can say with high probability that there was not only one Judahite commander writing, but at least four different ones. It is conceivable that each time another officer was sent to join the patrol – they took turns.”
According to the researchers, the findings shed new light on Judahite society on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple and on the setting of the compilation of biblical texts.
“It should be remembered that this was a small outpost, one of a series of outposts on the southern border of the kingdom of Judah,” said Sober. “Since we found at least 12 different authors out of 18 texts in total, we can conclude that there was a high level of literacy throughout the entire kingdom. The commanding ranks and liaison officers at the outpost, and even the quartermaster Eliashib and his deputy, Nahum, were literate.” Someone had to teach them how to read and write, said Sober, “so we must assume the existence of an appropriate educational system in Judah at the end of the First Temple period. This, of course, does not mean that there was almost universal literacy as there is today, but it seems that significant portions of the residents of the Kingdom of Judah were literate. This is important to the discussion on the composition of biblical texts. If there were only two or three people in the whole kingdom who could read and write, then it is unlikely that complex texts would have been composed.”
“Whoever wrote the biblical works did not do so for us, so that we could read them after 2,600 years, they did so in order to promote the ideological messages of the time,” concluded Finkelstein. “There are different opinions regarding the date of the composition of biblical texts. Some scholars suggest that many of the historical texts in the Bible – from Joshua to II Kings – were written at the end of the 7th century BCE, that is, very close to the period of the Arad ostraca. It is important to ask for whom these texts were written. According to one view, there were events in which the few people who could read and write stood before the illiterate public and read texts out to them. A high literacy rate in Judah puts things into a different light.”
“Until now, the discussion of literacy in the Kingdom of Judah has been based on circular arguments, that is, on what is written within the Bible itself, for example on scribes in the kingdom,” he said. “We have shifted the discussion to an empirical perspective. If in a remote place like Tel Arad there was, over a short period of time, a minimum of 12 authors of 18 inscriptions, out of the population of Judah – estimated to have been no more than 120,000 people – it means that literacy was not the exclusive domain of a handful of royal scribes in Jerusalem. The quartermaster from the Tel Arad outpost also had the ability to read and appreciate them.”